Amid the secrecy and confusion that surround the coming trials of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants, in Baghdad, a defense committee has formed that is said to consist of 2,000 volunteer lawyers from around the world. A few of those lawyers reside in Iraq. But because of the dangers there for anyone associated with the trials, the committee is based in neighboring Jordan, in the capital city of Amman. It derives its authority from permissions signed by the family of the deposed dictator, and later by Saddam himself, in confinement. Despite circumstantial evidence that it enjoys significant funding, the committee insists that it works for free. It was founded in reaction to the public humiliation suffered by Saddam Hussein upon his arrest in December of 2003, when he was exhibited on global television as a disheveled and defeated man. The committee's lead attorney, a dignified, gray-haired Jordanian named Ziad al-Khasawneh, recently told me in Amman that the circumstances of the arrest were a sham—that in reality Saddam had been captured several months earlier while praying in a house near Tikrit, and that the Americans had fed him drugs and let his hair grow long before pretending to find him in a hole. He also told me that the tsunami of last December had wiped out 20,000 U.S. soldiers whose deaths had been hidden by the Pentagon; that the invasion of Iraq was the product of a Zionist plot whose purpose was the annihilation of the Iraqi people; and that Yasser Arafat had been fatally poisoned by the CIA. Further on the subject of hidden casualties, he said that the American toll in Iraq is much higher than has been acknowledged, and that dead soldiers are routinely stripped of their valuables and identities and dumped from low-flying aircraft into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. He said that you can go to certain places at night and see the body bags falling. He said that he knows of a goatherd who discovered the secret place in the desert where the valuables are dumped, and who has since become rich by harvesting all the watches and rings. I listened with interest, not only because Mr. Ziad earnestly holds such beliefs, but also because his willingness to express them serves to some degree as a measure of their acceptability in the Middle East. Certainly Saddam, who has long been admired for his strength, is increasingly seen as a hero of the resistance, and maybe a tragic one. Ziad spoke of him with nearly filial love, as the Caring One. He had pride in his eyes. He explained that the defense committee's mandate, which was originally restricted to Saddam and his "comrades," had been widened by order of Saddam himself, who upon his first prison meeting with a lawyer, on December 16, 2004, declared that the team would henceforth be known as The Defense and Support Committee of President Saddam Hussein, His Comrades, and All POWs and Detainees in Iraq. This demonstrates, according to Ziad, that Saddam is a selfless man, dedicated to the well-being of his people. It is a view that will lie at the heart of most of the defense arguments in court. And the surprise is that with exceptions made for Saddam's obvious megalomania and the distortions caused by absolute power, the view will be difficult to prove wrong.
In English the initials for the committee are DSCPSHCPDI, which makes for poor acronyms no matter how the letters are stirred. For simplicity I have thought of "Committee for the Defense," or COD, but this is insufficiently specific, and with its evocation of a fish it would hardly do. In any case, English-speakers do not constitute the important audience for these trials. In Arabic Ziad has done better. He calls the committee ISNAD, an acronym that reflects some descriptive words, means "support," and has a useful religious significance: in Muslim belief an isnad is the chain of transmission or authority necessary to legitimize any of the Hadith. The Hadith are accounts of the words or actions of the Prophet, which along with the Koran provide rules for living, and form the basis of Islamic law. The law that will be applied by the Iraqi Special Tribunal is not Islamic. It consists of court procedures and rules of evidence that are largely Iraqi (and historically based on European models), and of substantive laws imported into Iraq from international courts by the American occupation authorities in 2004 for this single, strictly bounded use: laws pertaining to genocide, crimes against humanity, and the violations of the Geneva Conventions loosely known as war crimes. These laws are explicitly secular, as will be the punishments that are meted out—in the extreme, death by gunshot or hanging, rather than by the stroke of a sword or the impact of stones. Like Saddam Hussein, Ziad is more of an old-fashioned pan-Arab socialist than he is any sort of new-wave Islamist. Nonetheless, even an oblique reference to faith is helpful in these parts, and with his use of the name ISNAD, Ziad demonstrates a nice touch.
Beyond that, however, his grasp seems uncertain. In fairness to him, the terrain he must operate on is murky and viciously politicized. To the management question of how in the world to use 2,000 volunteer lawyers, most of whom are Arab and almost none of whom dare to go to Iraq, the best answer is not to use them at all—and this, by appearances, Ziad is doing well enough. On several occasions we talked after hours in his small office suite, on an avenue named after the Jordanian queen, in a middle-class district of Amman. Ziad is a very short man with a large potbelly. Because his face is regular, these attributes become apparent only when he stands up, at which point they come as a surprise. With me he sat behind his desk most of the time. He wore a suit and tie. His desk was neat but not empty. In addition to some stacks of paper it held an office telephone, a portable telephone, and, to one side, a laptop computer firmly connected to the Internet by a high-speed line. We drank strong, sweet coffee and once ate pastries baked by his wife. He does not smoke, which is rare for these parts. His assistants came and went, sat with us, and helped with translations. Messages arrived by phone and e-mail indicating that members of the committee were holding local meetings and issuing resolutions of solidarity. I did not doubt that these emotions mattered. But 2,000 lawyers? I asked Ziad how they had been selected. He prevaricated at first, but later said in essence that they had selected themselves, by signing on. I pressed him to describe of what practical use they were proving to be.